For centuries, Switzerland has striven to remain aloof from the troubles of the world. Even surrounded by Nazi-occupied Europe, the country managed — narrowly — to preserve its neutrality. Today, the Swiss often maintain, somewhat defensively, that they are not immune to the continent’s problems. But stroll through the tranquil and prosperous streets of Geneva or Zurich, and it is hard to detect even a hint of disharmony. For those wearied by the onslaught of world events, Switzerland still provides a refuge. Everything is clean; everything works; and the people are invariably well dressed, dazzlingly multilingual and conscientiously hospitable to strangers.
On my recent trip, I undertook a circular journey by both car and train. Even though Switzerland is a small country — slightly larger than Maryland but less than half the area of Maine — it has a long history and a rich culture, and on an itinerary of only two weeks, it is necessary to be selective. On this occasion, I decided to bypass most of the major cities and to concentrate on the natural splendor of the lakes and mountains. I traveled at the start of fall, just as the cattle were beginning their seasonal descent from the Alpine pastures. Snow remained only on the highest peaks, but in compensation, it was possible to marvel at the immense glaciers, which are mostly buried in winter. Although I have been to Switzerland half a dozen times at least, I had temporarily forgotten how absurdly beautiful it is: The grandeur of the scenery is a source of constant exhilaration.
On arrival in Geneva, everything seemed completely unchanged. The city’s symbol, the 450-foot Jet d’Eau fountain, continued to hurtle skyward; elegant white ferries with tall yellow funnels plied the serene expanse of the lake; and an international cast of visitors lingered over the watch displays in the luxury boutiques lining the Rue du Rhône. Standing on the Pont du Mont-Blanc, which straddles the green and clear water of the Rhône at its egress from the lake, I could clearly see my three recommended quayside grand hotels: the Beau-Rivage, Le Richemond and the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues.
All of them are situated on the north bank of the city, with views toward the Alps. The largely 16th-century Old Town of Geneva, on the other hand, was built on the south bank (known to locals as Rive Gauche). An atmospheric district of steep cobbled streets and limestone houses, it is centered on the medieval Cathédrale Saint-Pierre and the adjacent Place du Bourg-de-Four. The Old Town was home to two of the city’s most famous inhabitants: the theologian Jean Calvin and the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. (Rousseau’s house is open to the public, and the Musée International de la Réforme explores Calvin’s influence on the Protestant Reformation.) It is a place of inviting restaurants (including my recommended Restaurant Les Armures on Rue Puits-St-Pierre), sidewalk cafés, art galleries and antiquarian bookshops. (The best selection of contemporary English-language books and travel guides is to be found at Payot Genève Rive Gauche, Rue de la Confédération 7.)
On previous visits to Geneva, I’d often thought that it would be delightful to stay in the Old Town — the only drawback is that you lose the spectacular view across the lake to the mountains — but I’d never found anywhere that I could recommend. On this occasion, I decided to try the Hôtel de la Cigogne, a 52-room property located just three or four minutes’ walk from the lakeshore and the leafy Jardin Anglais. I’d picked up a car at the airport, and being tired after the transatlantic flight, I was agreeably surprised by the efficiency of the valet parking. A doorman literally dashed over and seized the keys; his affable colleague took charge of my suitcase, led me inside and introduced me to the equally friendly reception staff. First impressions really do matter, and on this occasion, they were entirely favorable.
The hotel is housed within 18th- and 19th-century buildings, to which additions were made in the 1980s. My Junior Suite (#68) proved to be resolutely traditional in style, with a terra-cotta tile floor, oriental rugs, gilt-framed portraits and mirrors, a huge fireplace (with gas log fire) and an intricately carved four-poster bed. The color scheme was subdued — mostly brown and cream, with expanses of polished wood — and in consequence the room was quite dark. Nonetheless, it struck me immediately as peaceful and civilized and as a place where I would be happy to spend time reading or tapping away at my laptop. A work desk stood before a window, from which it was possible to gaze down into the traffic-free Place de Longemalle with its café umbrellas and strolling shoppers.
Clearly, the conversion of the original space had not been without its challenges, as the bath was accessed by an unusually narrow door. Inside, it was slightly confined, though room had been found for two sinks and a large, powerful walk-in rainfall shower. Thanks to windows overlooking a central atrium, the lighting was excellent. I found the bath to be sufficiently comfortable; some readers, I suspect, might consider it cramped. (This being an old hotel, the layouts of the rooms and their baths doubtless vary greatly.)
The public areas at the Hôtel de la Cigogne comprise a restaurant and a ground-floor lounge where snacks are served. Although a pleasant place to sit with a glass of wine in front of the open log fire, the latter is not an ideal place for meals, chiefly because the tables and chairs are too low. But the restaurant — with its mahogany paneling, starched white tablecloths and black leather banquettes — is extremely attractive. Chef Nicolas Pasquier enjoys a considerable local reputation for his seasonal French cuisine, and the restaurant is invariably full at both lunch and dinner, so reservations are essential.
In style and atmosphere, the Cigogne is the virtual antithesis of the grand full-service properties that line Geneva’s north bank. Those who prefer smaller hideaway hotels may find it precisely what they have been looking for.
The hospitable staff; the excellent restaurant; the atmospheric and convenient Old Town location.
The lack of a proper venue for casual dining; my relatively small and slightly inconvenient bath.
My recommended Restaurant Les Armures is a five-minute walk away.
Lausanne lies just 40 miles northeast of Geneva. A university city of approximately 140,000 inhabitants, it too has an “old town,” with steep, narrow streets and a Gothic cathedral. On the lakeshore is the pretty enclave of Ouchy, once a fishing village and now a resort area with a waterfront promenade and a small port from which ferries depart to Evian (among other places), directly across the lake in France. Lausanne is home to the International Olympic Committee, and The Olympic Museum is located in Ouchy, surrounded by a park and a sculpture garden.
Just a few minutes’ walk away is my recommended Beau-Rivage Palace, a grand 168-room establishment dating from 1861. Having stayed at the Beau-Rivage before, this time I decided to try the Château d’Ouchy, a 50-room property housed within a neo-Gothic castle built between 1889 and 1893. (An original fortress was constructed by the Bishop of Lausanne in 1117, but it burned down in 1609.)
The Château d’Ouchy is set on the lakefront itself — whereas the Beau-Rivage Palace is separated from the water by gardens and a busy road — and it was extremely pleasant to be able to stroll directly onto the promenade to gaze at the mountains. Alas, this proved to be the hotel’s principal merit. Having eventually found a way into the car park, which is protected by electronic barriers and is inadequately signed, I headed to the lobby. To my surprise, this turned out to be decorated in a glitzy contemporary style. As there had been no porter, I asked the receptionist for help with my suitcase and received a look of incredulity. He didn’t actually say “I’m sure it has wheels,” but his sentiments were sufficiently clear. I decided to fetch it myself.
My Junior Suite had an attractive view along the northern shore of the lake, but the bath was tiny, with a shower over the tub and only a single narrow shelf. At lunch, a crayfish terrine was heavy and gelatinous, the delicate flavor of my fera (whitefish) was overwhelmed by the accompanying pine nuts and olives, and the cheese board offered a bizarre triumvirate that included manchego (Spanish) and Roquefort (French) in addition to the expected Swiss Gruyère.
Having checked out of the Château d’Ouchy with a degree of relief, I drove 12 miles east to Vevey, a serene lakeside town of about 20,000 inhabitants. A magnet for the famous and the well-to-do, Vevey has been home to luminaries as diverse as Charlie Chaplin, David Bowie and novelists Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene. It is also located within a notable wine-growing region, and Le Musée de la Vigne et du Vin, set within the spectacular Château d’Aigle, lies 16 miles to the southeast.
For many years, I have recommended the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes, a historic 71-room palace property overlooking the lake and the Savoy Prealps. While my endorsement still stands, I decided on this occasion to stay at the 50-room Grand Hôtel du Lac next door, which has the advantage of actually being on the lakefront promenade. (Heading west, it is a 10-minute stroll to the center of town, while to the east the promenade extends as far as Villeneuve, a three-hour walk along the Chemin Fleuri, “Flowered Path,” via Montreux.)
The front entrance of the Grand Hôtel du Lac is a little unpromising, as it is quite close to a busy road, but the interior of the property, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, is sumptuous, with lavish salons opening onto tranquil gardens. The check-in staff were friendly and efficient, if a little formal. I was escorted up to my Junior Suite (#209), which was decorated in a restful color scheme of pale blue, beige and white.
Overall, I was extremely content with my temporary home, a feeling of satisfaction that was greatly enhanced by a glass of white wine on my small and private wrought-iron balcony overlooking the lake.
The principal restaurant at the hotel is Les Saisons, where chef Thomas Neeser has won a Michelin star for his locally sourced cuisine. Alas, it was closed at the time of my visit, the summer high season having recently ended. Nonetheless, we ate extremely well in La Véranda brasserie, a lovely, light-filled space with floral fabrics, cane chairs and floor-to-ceiling windows. The other principal amenity of the hotel is a sophisticated Dr Burgener spa. (The original health and beauty clinic was opened in Lausanne in 1955 by Dr. Marc Burgener; for the past 21 years the business has been carried on by his daughter-in-law, Pauline.)
The Grand Hôtel du Lac is serene and gracious, with consummately professional staff. It is a smaller and more intimate property than its admirable competitor, the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes. I was extremely sorry to leave.
The lovely lakefront setting; the gracious accommodations; the notable spa.
The front of the hotel faces a busy road.
The waterfont promenade extends to the east as far as Villeneuve, a memorable three-hour walk away.
From Vevey, it is a 75-minute drive east to Gstaad and a 90-minute drive south to Chamonix. But, resisting temptation and keeping to my itinerary, I headed northeast to Interlaken, a journey of 90 miles, bypassing Fribourg and Bern. Interlaken is situated on a narrow isthmus between two lakes, with the great peaks of the Bernese Oberland forming a spectacular backdrop. My recommended hotel is the stately 224-room Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel & Spa. However, I have long been in search of a hideaway in the vicinity, so on this trip I had made reservations at a boutique hotel in Wengen, a mountain village eight miles to the south that is situated at an elevation of 4,180 feet, directly below the huge Jungfrau massif. Wengen is a car-free resort, so you either take a train from Interlaken or leave your vehicle in a parking lot at Lauterbrunnen, from where you ride a rack railway, the Wengernalpbahn, which takes just 14 minutes to make the 1,500-foot ascent.
The Hotel Caprice is a 20-room property housed within a traditional wooden Alpine building, located just steps from the Wengen railway station. Sometimes I find my task very frustrating; I had wanted to like the Caprice, as it would be a new hideaway in a sensationally beautiful setting. But alas, it soon became obvious that the hotel’s accommodations and amenities are below the standard expected by Hideaway Report readers. My suite was sufficiently comfortable but utilitarian, and the public areas were more functional than stylish. Fortunately, my dinner was enjoyable, and the service was attentive. My disappointment was made even more disagreeable by the fact that the owner and staff were delightful. I liked them very much, but I feel unable to recommend their hotel.
Still, my visit to Wengen was scarcely a waste of time. The terrace of the Caprice commands a stirring view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, an extraordinary trough gouged out between gigantic rock faces and overlooked by the Breithorn, a 12,402-foot snowcapped peak. And everywhere in Wengen is dominated by the Jungfrau, a massive 13,642-foot mountain from which descend huge glaciers riven with crevasses. I have always been fascinated by the history of the Eiger and its lethal north face — once regarded as the ultimate rock-climbing challenge — so one afternoon I took the Aerial Cableway up to Männlichen, a 10-minute, 3,000-foot ascent. At the top, the immense rock wall of the Eiger seems close enough to touch.
Resuming my journey, I headed northeast to Lucerne, 50 miles away, where the unspoiled medieval Old Town is situated on the north bank of the Reuss. My recommended property is the Palace Luzern, a 129-room Belle Epoque hotel fronting the lakeside esplanade. I also endorse the Park Hotel Vitznau, a château-resort situated on the north shore of the lake, a 40-minute drive away. Recently, however, I had heard good reports of the Villa Honegg, located on the Bürgenstock, a mountainside on the southern shore of Lake Lucerne. Leaving the main A2 motorway, I joined a minor road that wound its way higher in a series of hairpin bends. Eventually I arrived at a small plateau that formed a natural balcony surveying the serene blue water of the lake. (Many guests opt to reach the Villa Honegg by helicopter.)
Built in 1905 in the art-nouveau style, the 23-room Villa Honegg is an imposing building that was entirely refurbished in 2011. At reception, I was warmly greeted by the general manager. My Junior Suite was decorated in a subdued palette of coffee, cinnamon and cream. Aside from the king-size bed, backed by a striking woven-leather headboard, the room contained a white sofa set on a wide-plank hardwood floor, plus a small desk. A spacious white marble bath contained an extremely large walk-in shower as well as a soaking tub. The view from a tall window was simply breathtaking: A steep, emerald-green hillside, dotted with traditional wooden barns and chalets, descended to the lake, while the encircling mountains extended southward as far as the distant jagged peaks of the Saint-Gotthard Massif.
Public areas at the hotel include interconnected lounges furnished with wingback leather armchairs, deep sofas, open log fires and book-lined shelves. Perhaps the most dramatic feature of the Villa Honegg is its magnificent scenic terrace. Hungry after the morning’s drive, I ordered a board of local dried meats and cheeses and sat in the sunshine, sipping a glass of wine and watching the ferries and the sailing boats far below. That evening, the temperature having fallen precipitously, I moved indoors for dinner in the elegant dining room. There I enjoyed delicious marinated char served with char caviar, barley salad and baked nasturtium, with a celery and elderflower dressing; this was followed by crispy chicken breast on a bed of roasted tomato slices accompanied by an arugula-olive salsa. The service was charm personified.
The Villa Honegg’s other amenity of note is its spa. Facilities include an indoor pool with a counter-current swimming system and underwater music, a Finnish sauna and a steam bath. Best of all, however, is the stunning outdoor horizon pool, heated to 95 degrees year-round, from which there are glorious panoramas of the lake and mountains.
Overall, I was impressed by the Villa Honegg, which forms a wonderful counterpoint to the lakeshore Park Hotel Vitznau. The two properties are an hour’s drive apart, and if you have the time, I would be tempted to stay a couple of days at each.
The stupendous view; the glorious restaurant terrace; the excellent cuisine; the stunning outdoor pool.
Having to leave.
There are numerous well-signed hiking trails nearby.
From Lucerne, it is a three-hour drive to the Engadine valley in eastern Switzerland. The road passes the famous ski resorts of Klosters and Davos, crosses the 7,800-foot Flüela Pass and then descends to the mountain town of Susch. A long, high Alpine valley in the canton of Graubünden, the Engadine follows the Inn River until it flows into Austria. It is divided into two contrasting parts: The Upper Engadine is relatively broad and its principal town is St. Moritz; the Lower Engadine, which runs from Zernez to the Austrian border, is much more precipitous and remote.
At Susch, I turned left into the Lower Engadine and followed the river downstream as far as Sparsels, a pretty village dominated by the dramatic 11th-century Tarasp Castle, perched atop a rocky outcrop. At the foot of the castle, the 18-room Schlosshotel Chastè occupies a 500-year-old farmhouse that has been owned by the Pazeller family for 21 generations. Converted into a hotel in 1912, it is a dignified stuccoed building, with stencilled decoration, a sloping wooden roof in the traditional Alpine style and shuttered windows bedecked with boxes of pink and crimson geraniums. I was greeted in fluent English by the charming Gian Andrea Pazeller, who led me though a series of atmospheric public rooms to my Junior Suite (#134).
This proved to be a wonderful traditional room with pale paneled walls, a four-poster bed (with thick white duvets) and a sofa in an alcove. Although a little old-fashioned, the bath was well-lit, sufficiently spacious and contained two sinks and a shower over the tub. Tall glass doors led out from the bedroom into a private garden, from which there was a lovely view across the valley to the village of Ftan and the austere mountains above.
Dinner was served in a cozy paneled dining room, which was clearly patronized by local people as well as visitors. The cuisine was well-prepared and delicious. We enjoyed grilled entrecôte of venison with gnocchi and pumpkin sauce, and an Engadine beef tenderloin served with duck liver, truffles and Parmentier beignets (potato fritters). The wine list is extensive and includes a large selection of Swiss bottlings, which are little known only because they are seldom exported. I had assumed that all Swiss reds came from Ticino, in the southwest of Switzerland near the Italian border, but the sommelier did his best to dispel my ignorance by introducing me to Graubünden Pinot Noir, a grape variety here known as Blauburgunder.
The Schlosshotel Chastè is almost the definition of a hideaway. It is distinctive, atmospheric, comfortable and enchanting in every way. I cannot wait to return for a longer stay.
Traditional Alpine atmosphere; seclusion and tranquillity; hospitable owners; excellent food.
My bath was a little old-fashioned and lacked a separate shower.
The hotel makes a great base from which to explore picturesque villages such as Guarda, Ardez and Vulpera as well as the town of Scuol.
It is only a 40-minute drive southwest to the village of Brail in the Upper Engadine, where we had made reservations at another small family-owned hotel. The heart of the IN LAIN Hotel Cadonau is a 450-year-old house that has been in the Cadonau family for generations and that first opened as a bed-and-breakfast in 1965. It is now a gourmet retreat — the main restaurant, Vivanda, has one Michelin star — run by a young husband-and-wife team, Dario and Tamara Cadonau. To convert the old house into a hotel, the couple sought the help of Dario’s brother, Marco, who owns a company specializing in handmade furniture. (“In lain” means “with wood” in the regional language, Romansh.) Together they added 11 new Garden Suites to the old property, making 14 accommodations in all. The result is a highly imaginative and stylish juxtaposition of old and new.
On arrival I was greeted by Tamara Cadonau, who gave me a guided tour accompanied by commentary in fluent English. The first floor is taken up by a spacious open-plan lounge area and La Stüvetta, which serves Engadine specialties. Down a flight of stairs were two dining rooms — one, a former cow shed, is now chiefly for fondue — an open kitchen and a spectacular modern bar overlooking the wooded river valley at the back of the property. Our suite came with clean-lined contemporary furniture, two large and stylish armchairs covered in burgundy-colored leather, pale wooden floors, wood paneling and floor-to-ceiling glass doors. The well-appointed, ultra-modern bath provided two sinks set on a slab of gray marble, a soaking tub and a walk-in shower. From our private terrace we could see the hotel’s spring-fed swimming pool, the garden sauna cabin and a large stone pine hot tub.
Alas, it was chef Dario’s night off, and Vivanda was closed, so we ate instead at La Stüvetta. There, feeling in the mood for something light and simple, I opted for wild mushroom soup with skewers of quail breast, a salad with local dried meat and goat cheese, and a bowl of linguine with black truffles.
Even though IN LAIN Hotel Cadonau and the Schlosshotel Chastè are separated by only 23 miles, they are so different from one another that, once again, you may feel inclined to stay for a night or two in each. The Schlosshotel offers tranquillity and seclusion; IN LAIN fronts the fairly busy Route 27 to St. Moritz, but the rear of the property is peaceful. Both provide convenient bases from which to hike in the Swiss National Park.
Inspired contemporary design; choice of fine restaurants; delightful owners; proximity to St. Moritz.
Too close to the road from Zernez to St. Moritz.
The nearby Swiss National Park has well-marked hiking trails.
Fashionable and glitzy St. Moritz lies just 17 miles southwest of Brail. In order to find a smaller, more low-key alternative to the famous Badrutt’s Palace Hotel, I had made a reservation at the Hotel Walther Pontresina, located a 10-minute drive away in an adjacent valley. Maybe I had been spoiled by my two previous stays, because somehow the property failed to appeal. I couldn’t really put my finger on precisely what I didn’t care for; the hotel is family-owned, the welcome was warm, my room and bath were comfortable if not exactly the summit of style, the public areas are spacious and traditionally furnished, dinner was pleasant if unspectacular and the indoor pool and spa facilities are admirable. But somehow, an indefinable quality was lacking. Perhaps I am being unfair, and the hotel would be more appealing in the winter high season. I have a sneaking feeling that a proportion of Hideaway Report readers would like the Hotel Walther a great deal. But even so, I am not inclined to recommend it.
From St. Moritz, I had decided to take the famous Glacier Express train to Zermatt, a daylong journey of just under 200 miles. It was 6:30 p.m. when I finally arrived at the station in Zermatt, but there was still enough light to see the extraordinary fang of the Matterhorn. The best views of the Matterhorn from a hotel are those at my recommended Riffelalp Resort 2222 m, which is situated above Zermatt at 7,300 feet and is only accessible by a 20-minute ride on the Gornergrat cogwheel train. At the time of my recent visit, the property was temporarily closed for refurbishment, as was the Hotel Monte Rosa, my recommended option in the center of town. I had therefore decided to try a family-owned boutique property, Coeur des Alpes.
Zermatt is car-free, so I took an electric taxi from the station. To my considerable surprise, about five minutes later it pulled up at the entrance to a tunnel. In order to reach the reception of the Coeur des Alpes, you first have to walk along 100 feet of tunnel and then take an elevator, the shaft of which has been bored through solid rock. Emerging, I found myself in a bright and spacious open-plan lounge and dining area, the centerpiece of which was a log fire with a metal chimney. Through a glass door, I could see a terrace with a large hot tub, a number of white cabanas and, as a backdrop, the north face of the Matterhorn. Perched on its rocky ledge at the southern edge of town, the hotel has unobstructed Matterhorn views from many of its accommodations as well as from its public areas.
The Coeur des Alpes is owned by an engaging couple, Leni and Thomas Müller-Julen, whose instinctive hospitality is shared by their consistently amiable employees. After a complimentary welcome glass of Prosecco, we were shown to our 600-square-foot loft by a polite young woman who spoke excellent English. After a ride in a second elevator, a glass cube set at a sharp angle, we climbed a short, steep flight of stairs to emerge into our unusual living room. This was decorated in a contemporary style and had a handsome wooden floor, a large sofa, a dining table and a retractable glass roof. A king-size bed was set on a raised platform, while one side of the living area, somewhat surprisingly, was taken up by a large metal tub and a single vanity. An adjacent small bath contained a walk-in shower and a second sink. Another flight of steps led down to an outdoor terrace with two sun loungers and an unimpeded view of the Matterhorn. To say that the layout was idiosyncratic would be a considerable understatement, and the design would undoubtedly drive some people crazy. Personally, I found it extremely enjoyable, if slightly inconvenient at times. In particular, I loved the retractable roof.
Not all the accommodations at the Coeur des Alpes are quite so eccentric. As even the Large Double Rooms are quite small (375 square feet), I only recommend suites and lofts. Some readers may also be interested in the two expansive three-bedroom apartments, “Sky” and “River.”
The hotel does not have a restaurant, but the breakfast buffet is lavish. During the day, snacks and wine are always available. Zermatt has numerous restaurants, many within easy walking distance, and reception staff are happy to make suggestions and reservations. The principal amenity of the property is its splendid wellness center, which offers a dramatic indoor heated pool, a hammam, caldarium, Kneipp pool, an infrared sauna and a small fitness room.
The Coeur des Alpes offers a location that is perfect for both skiers and hikers, owing to its proximity to the Klein Matterhorn gondola. Overall, it is a property that will appeal to those who enjoy contemporary architecture and design; it is not one that should be considered by travelers who prefer more traditional surroundings. Ultimately, its greatest merit is the warmth and friendliness of its owners. At the end of my trip, it was an appropriate reminder that the Swiss have refined the art of hotel keeping, perhaps to a degree unrivaled anywhere else in the world.
Imaginative modern design; friendly owners and staff; unobstructed Matterhorn view; excellent spa facilities.
Lack of a restaurant.
The Klein Matterhorn gondola is a five-minute walk away.